Poverty, Capitalism, and Pope Francis

“The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes.” Pope Francis

Poverty is linked to some of the most pressing issues of modern times, from climate change to gun violence. Yet all too often, how we view poverty reflects societal misconceptions and prejudices and is disconnected from our moral and spiritual beliefs about the dignity and worth of every life. We can only hope that Pope Francis’ moral and spiritual call to serve the poor, sick, and marginalized, a major focus during his trip to the United States, will inspire our elected officials to address the plight of the poorest among us.

In his address to Congress, Pope Francis stated, “Every life is sacred.” In just a few words, Francis challenged the traditional political, economic, and social norms of the United States. The pope made it clear that we all have a moral and spiritual obligation to look past our individual wants and desires and instead strive to provide for the protection of the common good. And American capitalism, with its long-standing tradition of rugged individualism, aggressive competition, and mass consumption, appears to conflict with the pope’s call to seek out social justice and promote the common good.

Because of this conflict, Pope Francis and many Catholics correctly ask the question: can today’s version of capitalism properly address the structural causes of poverty?

To be clear, some measure of material inequality is (and always will be) a natural occurrence. Certainly there will always be those who cannot afford particular commercial items, such as the latest sports car or yacht. But Pope Francis is talking about a different type of inequality, one that results in indifference and exclusion.

Pope Francis believes the excesses of capitalism must be tempered by a government which seeks to protect and defend the poor, sick, and marginalized. Fortunately, the Constitution of the United States grants government the power to promote what it calls the general welfare–a phrase which shares a special bond with the common good. In fact, both phrases have been used by presidents as a call for government to provide basic safeguards and provisions that are needed for a stable, prosperous society to emerge.

During his inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson spoke of a desire to put aside differences in an effort to “unite in common efforts for the common good.”

In a message to Congress, Theodore Roosevelt declared, “Where there is no governmental restraint or supervision some of the exceptional men use their energies not in ways that are for the common good, but in ways which tell against this common good.” Roosevelt’s famous “New Nationalism” speech mentions promoting and protecting the general welfare from what he called “unfair money-getting” by “a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men.”

Prior to running for president, in a statement which defined the kind of balance and wisdom he strove for as the leader of the free world, Dwight D. Eisenhower said at Columbia University, “To blend, without coercion, the individual good and the common good is the essence of citizenship in a free country.”

A more recent example would be Barack Obama, who stated, “Only Government can make those investments in common goods that serve the general welfare but are too expensive for any individual or firm to purchase on their own.”

Far from calling for the abolition of capitalism, the pope instead desires structural reform which addresses its most harmful aspects. In Evangelii Gaudium, or Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis rightly critiques free market capitalism when he states:

“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

There’s no arguing capitalism in the United States has brought millions out of poverty and raised the level of productivity to great heights. Still, when there are an estimated 3.5 million people that are homeless each year and over 17 million vacant housing units, something isn’t entirely right with the system. Nor is it acceptable that about $165 billion in food (40% of our food supply) is wasted each year while over 15 million children live in food insecure households.

As Pope Francis stated in 2013, “Many social, political and economic systems have chosen to exploit the human person” in the workplace, by “not paying a just wage, not offering work, focusing solely on the balance sheets, the company’s balance sheets, only looking at how much I can profit. This goes against God!”

Essentially, competition and profit without concern for the dignity of the worker and the family creates an economy which excludes and kills the poorest among us.

As I mentioned, inequality will always exist, at least in the material sense. But steps can be taken to ensure that the least fortunate among us have their most basic needs met. This bountiful nation has the material and human potential to fight the worst effects of poverty, yet seems to lack the courage, determination, and direction to take any measurable action due to the cynicism, indifference, and greed found in the current political and economic system.

Pope Francis, like all social justice-oriented Catholics, defines his political and economic views through a lifelong struggle to understand and live a moral and spiritual life. The pope understands that no political or economic system is perfect.  The views of a Catholic committed to the common good and social justice are therefore constantly evolving and challenged due to encounter and dialogue with others.

In the final analysis, unbridled capitalism, without concern for the common good and general welfare, results in far too much pain and suffering for too many of our poorest citizens. Will more elected officials act in good will and join with Pope Francis on his mission to uplift the poor, sick, and marginalized throughout our society? Let these elected officials join with Pope Francis and say, “We want change, real change, structural change.

Stephen Seufert is the state director of Keystone Catholics, an online social justice organization dedicated to promoting the common good.